For a long time, Louisiana has been one of the least healthy states in the country.

We have struggled with obesity, diabetes and preventative care, but we are now making substantial progress toward improving these health outcomes.

The most important change we have made at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is to overhaul the Medicaid program, which primarily provides care for children, pregnant women and individuals with age-related or developmental disabilities. As the data starts to come in, we are seeing two results very clearly: Bayou Health is improving health outcomes and saving taxpayers’ money.

Last week, Marsha Shuler’s story “Bayou Health faces changes, and queries from legislators” briefly touched on the issue of savings, which we are certainly achieving. But in order to fully evaluate Bayou Health, outcomes and savings should be considered together.

Bayou Health is a managed care system for Medicaid recipients. Before Bayou Health was implemented over two years ago, Medicaid recipients were largely left to navigate a complex health care system alone. This frequently led to waste as people relied too heavily on emergency rooms and didn’t access the right follow-up care.

With Bayou Health, Medicaid is more than just an insurance card. Each health plan represents a network of doctors and specialists throughout the state, supported by resources like case management and nurse help lines to help individuals manage their diabetes, lose weight and quit smoking.

More than 63,000 Louisiana residents are receiving support as they make lifestyle changes to improve their health, and 25,000 are receiving assistance with managing a chronic disease. These are the kind of small, sustainable changes we need to become healthier as a community.

We have high expectations for our Bayou Health partners. Health plans are measured and financially rewarded or penalized based on metrics such as the number of children getting preventative well-child visits and ensuring proper testing and checkups for people with diabetes.

We are also saving taxpayer money in Bayou Health. In the first full fiscal year of the program, we saved $135.9 million in taxpayer dollars. Since then, we’ve been controlling the growth of the program. Historically, Medicaid has grown at a rate of 5 percent a year. Now we’re only growing at a rate of less than 3 percent a year. In a $9 billion program, that results in millions of dollars in savings each year.

We will soon be rebidding the contracts for companies to operate Bayou Health for the state. We’ll be asking contractors to find ways to increase the success we’ve already seen, to better manage the care of Louisiana residents and to continue to save the state money.

We are also seeking ways to make the program operate even more efficiently and create greater administrative simplicity for health care providers along with incentives for health plans to more directly engage providers to help us achieve our health outcome goals. We are committed to making Louisiana a healthier place to live and we are excited for Bayou Health to help get us there.

Kathy H. Kliebert

secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals

Baton Rouge